Pacing and editing in Infinity War

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my Marvel journey. Although I am ready for more diversity in the movies I watch, my little project of watching and reviewing Marvel movies has been such fun. I didn’t immediately review a few movies towards the end and wasn’t very good about posting all reviews before Endgame released. And while I wish I had been better about that, distance from this project has made me better at understanding the nature of Marvel movies. A number of film nerds, particularly those who have read comic books, don’t like the formulaic nature of Marvel movies. I didn’t really mind that, especially because I was trying to understand the genre and dissect different elements in the movie. But now (after 23 movies!) I appreciate a movie like Infinity War much more for breaking the formula and giving the viewer a roller coaster ride.

Writing a film with over twenty protagonists is no easy task. Don’t expect to understand all or even a few of them by the end of this film if you are not familiar with the Marvel universe already. Infinity War is one of two Marvel movies that doesn’t work as a standalone film. I hadn’t watched Guardians of the Galaxy when I first saw Infinity War. I doubt I had watched Ragnarok. And I remember not enjoying the movie and wondering what the hype was all about. Oh, how wrong I was! Once I was familiar with the characters, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its run time.

What struck me most about Infinity War (other than the ability to weave multiple stories into one mega-narrative) was the pacing of this film. Infinity War starts with full force. There is no time to get settled in and take stock of what is happening either for the audience or for our protagonists. This conveys a sense of urgency that lingers for the entirety of the film. Everyone just has to react to the situation in front of them. In this fast-paced movie our favourite superheroes seem to be in a constant state of struggle, with their heads just above the water. As a viewer, I have seen them struggle in previous films but they have always come out on top. This time, their victories are small, and come with a sense of desperation. As if there is another fire just waiting to be put out. For instance, we see Ironman, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange struggling to protect the Time Stone aboard Maw’s spaceship. While together they are able to match up to the far more powerful Maw, there is no time to relax or take a breath. The film cuts to Scotland where Vision is attacked and it is up to Wanda – and later, Cap, Falcon and Black Widow – to protect him. The audience is now exposed to another action sequence within minutes of the first. The non-stop action distinguishes Infinity War from the films that have come before it.

This kind of pacing – short, intense action sequences ending in small victories before moving on to the next challenge – is also instrumental in subverting audience expectations and making the film’s climax shocking. This is because, after a while I got used to the fast pace and small victories in the film. Furthermore, the superheroes, though down on their luck, don’t seem defeated. I mean, Thor took the power of a star to make Stormbreaker, arrived in Wakanda like an absolute badass and struck Thanos in the heart. So, when Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe, with the superheroes scattered and defeated in different parts of the universe, I was left more than a little stunned. This is the first time that the heroes have failed in their mission.

Apart from the pacing, film is made so that the sense of shock lingers on right until the post-credit scene. Thanos’ snap doesn’t cut to a black screen followed by credits. We see our favourite superheroes turn to dust. We see Ironman’s horrified expression (and we share that horror) when we hear Spidey say, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good… I don’t want to die.” We see resignation on the faces of the survivors when they realise they have failed, and that their failure has wiped out half of all life in the universe. They, along with everyone else, have lost people they loved. This is further compounded by the next scene, wherein we see Thanos retire like he said he would. We see him alone, calm, walking through empty green fields, believing he did the right thing and that the universe was grateful to him. That genocide was his mercy to the universe. That wordless scene, seemingly calm in its setting, makes the end even more eerie. Furthermore, I think the credits make it such that we cannot snap out of that feeling soon. So far, MCU movies have half the credits shown in a stylised manner with fun music to accompany it. Not this film. The film’s grim tone is carried forward through the design of its credits – a black screen with formal font. The film manages to show what Doctor Strange says after handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, namely, “we’re in the endgame now.”

To me, the form of the film is what made Infinity War special. It helped me understand how constructing a scene and editing can help steer the viewer’s emotions and expectations. Most of my reviews so far have been focused on writing and character development. Perhaps because I am only beginning to understand filmmaking as an art. I think this film is my cue to pay closer attention to editing and understanding the elements that go into constructing a scene.

Before I sign off, I must make a note about Thor’s character in this film. I think it is safe to say that of all the superheroes, Thor gets the strongest part in the film. A lot of that, I think, is owing to how the character was written in Ragnarok. At the beginning of this film, we have a character who has found himself but lost everything of worth to him. Thanos kills all the Asgardians aboard the spaceship along with his best friend, Heimdall and his brother, Loki. The Russo brothers do a fantastic job in using Thor’s arc in Ragnarok as a base and taking the character forward. He is still funny in this movie. But we can see that it is more to cover up his pain than anything. The scene between Thor and Rocket on the way to Nidavellir conveys this perfectly. Thor jokes about losing every person he ever loved. The scene is funny but also horrifying. With a realisation of his power, and nothing to live for except revenge, Thor comes the closest to defeating Thanos. The viewer, in turn, wants to see Thor come out on top as the towering hero. His entry in Wakanda is epic. But it isn’t only because of the stylised entry and his blow with the Stormbreaker. It is because of a close understanding of character and careful writing to carry him forward.

Before Endgame, Infinity War was probably the boldest movie in the MCU. It is no easy task to write a coherent, compelling story that follows narratives and characters across 18 movies and then present that story convincingly to a hungry audience. But Infinity War manages to deliver an entertainer that turns the Marvel formula on its head without relying on clichés (perhaps because it doesn’t rely on clichés). So, do yourself a favour, and watch this movie (or watch it again). Ponder on the journey it takes you through. You will not be disappointed.

Review: Don’t Breathe

Good movies lure you in and don’t leave you even after the credits roll. Unfortunately, the 2016 Crime/Thriller movie by Fede Álvarez didn’t quite do that. My friend had been asking me to watch Don’t Breathe for a more than a few months, and with nothing else to do on a Saturday night, I decided to give in. What I got was a below-average movie, buoyed only because of its somewhat impressive plot and entirely inoffensive use of light, camera work and sound.

Although I hate summarising the plot, I need to do so to provide context. Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three friends from Detroit who rob houses to sustain themselves. In order to run away to California, they decide to steal one last time. They pick a blind, retired veteran’s (Stephen Lang) house, and hope that it would be an easy mission. Things, however, go wrong as the man fights back and kills Zovatto. The remainder of the movie is centred around the thieves’ escape from the house.

This basic plot kept me interested through at least two-thirds of the movie. The scenes involving Levy and Minnette’s escape from a locked house with a blind veteran with a sharp aim on their heels are realistic and engaging. This is especially true when, for, a brief time the two remaining thieves are forced to run through his house in the dark, losing the one advantage they have over the veteran – sight. These scenes are cleverly thought of and well executed. There are more than few genuinely scary moments scattered across the movie. These scenes are also exciting because they rely entirely upon visuals to communicate the scene, with little to no dialogue.

The paucity of dialogue is an even bigger advantage for the film considering how terrible the dialogues are. At one point, Zovatto, who is supposed to embody a ‘gangsta’ aesthetic (complete with tattoos and smoking pot) says unconvincingly of Levy who has entered the house through a bathroom window to let the other two in, “That’s my bitch in there.” In addition to poor dialogue, the movie is genuinely hurt by poor characters. It is almost a feat that in a movie with four lead characters, I found myself not rooting for anyone. Minnette, with his performance of a friendzoned thief with morals is entirely unconvincing. As is his rattling of state laws for different crimes at any given instance. Levy’s expressions, one the other hand, are able to carry the emotions of terror that the characters are supposed to be feeling. Stills of her terrified face and wide eyes may even remind one of Alexis Bledel in one of the execution scenes of The Handmaid’s Tale, of course, minus the latter’s brilliance.

The film tries too hard to evoke sympathies for its characters, particularly those of Lang and Levy. From the very beginning it is established that Levy’s propensity to steal comes from her fucked-up family dynamics. (Why do the other two do it? Who knows.) Lang has a woman locked up in his basement, but that is only because she killed his daughter. He has impregnated her, but professes that he didn’t rape her, but rather, artificially inseminated her. By this point, I was simply rolling my eyes. I assume that the writers of the film (Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues) hoped that these revelations would lead to complex characters with shades of grey. They do nothing of the sort, and all of the characters end up falling flat. I also had a problem with the pacing of the film. It is quite difficult to imagine that a 90-minute film feels too long, particularly when I am used to watching 3-hour long Bollywood films. But the chase sequences featuring Levy and Lang (complete with a dog helping him) do get tedious after a while.

When I started watching the movie, I thought to myself, let me see how sound and camera angles are used to convey feelings of terror. This movie didn’t succeed in helping me pin-point that. And I’m not sure if that is a point in the film’s favour or not. I wish I had started this blog by examining a film I liked more, and had more to say about. But there is no harm in watching the movie, particularly if you have nothing else to do on a Saturday night.